By the early 1820s, Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) was at the peak of his creative powers. He operated his own studio, had numerous pupils and demand for his work was consistently high.
Without much apparent effort, he churned sketches by the hundreds, for books or single-sheet woodblock prints. His subjects of predilection were kabuki actors and coquettish belles, but in his long career, he touched upon a cornucopia of themes. Not yet 40, he was already well on his way to becoming the most successful print designer — if not the most original — in the entire history of ukiyo-e.
The art form at which Kunisada excelled was a phenomenon unique to Edo (now Tokyo). Its roots can be traced back to the birth of the city and the political and economic reforms that Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) and his heirs adopted after uniting the country in 1600. These began, in a nutshell, with urbanization and economic development. As business and government activity expanded, demand for educated workers followed. This, in turn, pushed literary rates upward. Merchants grew affluent and increasingly confident too, despite being confined to the lowest rung of the social ladder. In time, Edo blossomed into a large metropolis — it had 1 million inhabitants by the early 1720s — and since it hosted a population that skewed male and buzzed with idle samurai, demand for entertainment soared.
This generated a bonanza for commercial publishers. They commissioned new books to satiate the hunger of urban dwellers for light literature. They worked with producers to flood the market with flashy signboards and playbills in order to attract patrons to the theater. They prepared colorful guidebooks on the most popular courtesans to drum up business in the pleasure quarters.
All this material, whether standalone posters or bound volumes, was produced in the same way, by chiseling blocks of wood that were subsequently inked and pressed on paper of various sizes. And since there was no difference, from a technical standpoint, between carving an image, Chinese characters or Japanese kana, most prints displayed all three.
This is the context in which Sugimura Jihei (active circa 1681-98) created what is now considered the first stand-alone ukiyo-e print. His technique was rudimentary: a woodblock for the black contour of the image and a brush to apply color by hand. But crucially, these prints were cheap. They “opened up the world of enjoying and collecting art which had hitherto been limited to wealthy warriors and merchants,” writes Andreas Marks in his encyclopedic and lavishly-illustrated “Japanese Woodblock Prints.”
Artists and publishers spent the following decades experimenting with a variety of techniques. A breakthrough was achieved in 1765 when Suzuki Harunobu (1725-70) perfected an existing technology that made it possible to align precisely different color blocks when printing a single sheet. Since each color normally required a separate block, the chromatic potential of prints was now significantly enhanced along with that for their mechanical reproduction. Around that time, the ōban paper format (39 centimeters × 27 centimeters) was also gaining in popularity. By the early 1780s it had become dominant.
The craft had reached its technical maturity. What subsequent generations of artist did was push the expressive possibilities of the medium in new directions. In the early 1830s, for instance, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) began using imported blue pigments to revitalize the landscape genre and jolt it to unimaginable heights of popularity. Not long after, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) experimented with ingenious compositions that spread a single design across three or more ōban sheets.
One of the merits of Marks’ volume is that most images are presented in near-original size, thereby allowing readers to examine them in all their splendid details. Its 200 reproductions embrace the entire history of the genre and even go beyond by covering the new print movements of the early 20th century.
As the popularity of ukiyo-e prints expanded, competition grew fierce. To distinguish themselves, publishers pioneered new techniques such as using embossing to create relief or sprinkling minerals to make parts of a print glimmer. Artists toyed with risque subjects and political satire. Customers loved it. Trade was brisk.
But it could also be risky. Time and again, the shogunate cracked down on publishers and their designers, people who, in its views, were mere peddlers of vulgarity undermining public morality. In the early 1790s, it banned “offensive” topics, imposed limits on the use of “luxurious material” and made mandatory the display of a censor’s seal on all prints. Always wary of criticism, it also instituted a prohibition in 1804 against the depiction of historical figures who lived after 1573. Other measures followed and most remained in place, at least on paper, until the 1860s.
It was all to no avail. No censorship could “dampen the widespread interest in prints,” Marks writes, and “hundreds of new designs continued to be put on the market every year.” With more than 16,000 images to his name, no artist in the entire history of ukiyo-e contributed more to this effort than Kunisada. The shogunate never stood a chance.